The Maryland State & D.C. AFL-CIO, sidestepping a controversial labor issue, yesterday declined to endorse a proposed District voter initiative that would restore recent cuts in the city's unemployment compensation benefits.

The referendum, planned for the ballot next May, is being pushed by a coalition of six local unions but is strongly opposed by the AFL-CIO's Metropolitan Washington Council, which represents about 180,000 local union members.

"We're being put in the middle here," Thomas Bradley, president of the 600,000-member Maryland-D.C. AFL-CIO, said before yesterday's vote, in which a resolution supporting the voter initiative was tabled.

Yesterday's action came on the third and final day of the group's biennial convention and was the only divisive issue among some 60 resolutions considered. Bradley, before the discussion of the unemployment initiative, ordered the session at the Shoreham Hotel closed to the press because, he said, "I don't want to air our dirty linen" publicly.

The initiative has become a focus of a growing rivalry between the Metropolitan Washington Council and the Food and Allied Service Trades Council (FAST), which sponsored the initiative.

FAST consists of six private-sector unions, representing about 50,000 workers, which have split from the labor council. The unions have strongly criticized the council's president, Joslyn N. Williams, because they believe the council is more concerned with public employe unions than those in private industry.

Williams, who lobbied successfully at the convention against the initiative, said he was pleased that the Maryland-D.C. federation chose "not to get caught in bloodletting" by taking sides with either his council or FAST.

The initiative would eliminate the current $206 weekly cap on benefits, increase taxes on most employers by about $20 to $35 per employe, guarantee jobless persons 39 weeks of benefits, and restore benefits for workers who voluntarily resign or are fired for cause.

The measure must be approved for the ballot by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, which will consider it next week. Subsequently, backers must collect the signatures of about 20,000 registered voters.

The measure would rescind cuts in benefits proposed by Mayor Marion Barry and approved by the City Council last March in an effort to reduce a $57 million deficit in the city unemployment fund.

The labor council opposes the FAST initiative because the council agreed six months ago to participate in a nine-member city commission that is expected to report by January on a long-range plan to revamp the unemployment system. Williams said that if labor is dissatisfied with the commission's recommendations "we can always do an initiative later. . . . Right now it is premature and ill-advised."

Ron Richardson, secretary-treasurer of Local 25 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, which sponsored the resolution, said he was disappointed by the vote, but added that it would not hamper the drive to put the measure on the ballot.

In a related development, Peter Catucci, president of the 4,400-member Local 2336 of the Communications Workers of America, said yesterday his local has joined FAST and dropped out of the labor council because the largely public-sector council "doesn't know how to deal with our problems."

Williams said the criticism is baseless, and noted that several other CWA locals still belong to the council.